Why Grapes?

Vitis-vinifera-2

Most wine is made from grapes. If you are attempting to make wine from fruit other than grapes, it pays to understand why this is. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

You’ve probably noticed that most wine is made from grapes. If you go to the liquor store, you may be able to find a few wines made from other fruits (so-called country wines), but these are a small minority. The vast majority of wines are made from grapes. And not just any grapes —  most wines are made from grapes of the species Vitis vinifera.

With summer here and many fruit harvests to come, some homebrewers may be wondering if they can make homemade wine from the bounty of their local orchards or gardens. You can, but before trying to make wine from fruit, it pays to understand why most wine is made from grapes. In a nutshell, grapes contain the right balance of sugars, acids and tannins to make a fermented beverage that will keep and also taste good.

On their own, most other fruits do not. However, you can add sugar, acid or tannins to balance the juice from any fruit and ferment it into a delicious fruit wine. Over the summer, I’ll explain how to make fruit wine from a few of the more popular fruits. But first, let’s take a look at grapes and what makes them the fruit of choice for most winemakers.

Sugar

Wine grapes contain enough sugar — primarily glucose and fructose — to produce a fermented beverage of at least 9%, and usually higher, especially for reds. (12–13% ABV is typical for red wines, with many “blockbuster” California or Australian wine up around 15%.) At this alcohol content, wine can be kept for years without spoiling, in contrast to the grapes that made it. Most fruits, with the exceptions of figs, dates and a few others, do not contain this high level of sugar. So, in most cases, you must add sugar to your juice when making fruit wine. Sucrose (table sugar) is the most popular sugar used for this and you can use the potential alcohol scale on your hydrometer to ensure you are in the 9–11% ABV range, which works best from most country wines.

 

Acid

The sweetness of wine is balanced by its acidity. Wine grapes contain sufficient acidity to make a wine that isn’t “flabby” — lacking enough crispness from acidity to be pleasant. On the other hand, they do not contain so much acid as to make the wine tart. In other fruits, acidity runs the gamut. When making wine from low-acid fruits, acid must be added. Home winemaking shops sell both tartaric acid (which is the most abundant acid in grapes) and acid blends (that mimic the proportions of tartaric, ctiric and malic acid in wine). 7–9 g/L is a good target for the total acid level in country wines. In the case of very tart fruits, acids can be neutralized with a base such as sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) or else the wine can intentionally allowed to be tart. (An old school approach to adding acid to country wines is to squeeze lemons into the fruit juice.)

 

Tannins

In the right amount, tannins give a slightly puckering mouthfeel (sometimes confused with bitterness) that gives wine “structure.” Grape skins usually contain sufficient tannins to give a wine structure and many wines (reds especially) are aged in oak to supplement the level of tannins. (Oak also imparts a vanilla-like flavor and other flavors and aromas.) Other fruits may or may not be tannic enough to produce a grape-like wine. Fortunately, home winemaking stores also sell tannin powder. (In the old days, country wine makers used to add small amounts of iced tea to their wines for the same effect.)

 

Flavor

Finally, the flavor intensity in grapes gives wines enough flavor to be interesting, but not overwhelming. For more intensely flavored fruits, the juice needs to be diluted with water (and hence sugar and perhaps acid) prior to fermentation to produce a pleasant wine. In many cases, old school country wine makers would kill two birds with one stone by diluting their fruit juice with grape juice (often from Welch’s frozen grape concentrate — either white or red — and rely on the grape juice to supply the needed sugars and acidity, along with some grape flavor.)

Over the summer, we’ll take a look at some popular fruits — raspberries, cherries and peaches — and what it takes to make wine from them.

Comments

  1. Brandonlovesbeer says:

    What about regular Frozen Concentrate concord grape juice? Is this an acceptable place to start?

    Brandon
    Greenville, SC

    • Chris Colby says:

      You can make wine from supermarket frozen grape concentrate (or supermarket grape juice), but you probably won’t be thrilled with the quality. In the US, most red grape juice comes from Concord grapes and most white grape juice comes from Niagara grapes. If you make a wine from just frozen grape concentrate, it will likely be “foxy” — a description given to some wines made from American table grapes [and not (presumably) meaning that they taste like a small omnivorous canid that British people like to hunt].
      Frozen grape concentrate, used sparingly, can give a nice “backbone” to a country wine. Fermented on it’s own, the results won’t be very interesting. For a wine made from only grapes, you’ll have much better results from a wine kit or a bucket of wine grape juice (presuming you don’t want to take the leap into full-on winemaking).

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  2. This summer has been great for the wild grape vines on my property, as well as my father-in-law’s. Being in Wisconsin, I’m guessing these are probably concord grapes. Based on the reading I’ve done, I may need to add both sugar and water to hit the right volume and gravity. Since I would have the skins and everything, would this allow for a more interesting wine versus one from concentrate?

    Thanks for all the information you’re providing.

    • Chris Colby says:

      There’s really only one way to find out. You might want to try to get the grapes identified. They could be Concords, but there are other possibilities as well. If the grapes taste good, you could also use them to make a mead with grapes (a pyment, in the lingo).

  3. You’ve probably seen this, but Jack Keller has an outstanding website on making wine, and specifically many country wines. It has a ton of information and recipes. There’s not a lot in the way of testing, like what you and James often do with brewing, but I found it to be a great resource.

    http://winemaking.jackkeller.net/index.asp

  4. Kenneth Covington says:

    I have discovered some what I believe are concord but am not sure they are seedless and very good but are kinda dark redish in color they are a little smaller in size please help me any suggestions on how to determine what type they are!

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